The Latest | Families Of Hostages Held In Gaza Launch A 4-Day March To Demand Their Freedom

A tent camp housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive is seen in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
A tent camp housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive is seen in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
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The families of hostages held in Gaza and their supporters are launching a four-day march from southern Israel to Jerusalem to demand their loved ones be set free.

The march comes as negotiations are underway in Qatar to bring about a deal between Hamas and Israel that would lead to a cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages. U.S. President Joe Biden has said such a deal was at hand but officials from Israel and Hamas were skeptical of his optimism.

Negotiators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar are working on a framework deal under which Hamas would free some of the dozens of hostages it holds in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and a six-week halt in fighting. During the temporary pause, negotiations would continue over the release of the remaining hostages.

The war has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and sparked global concern over the situation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town along the border with Egypt, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety from Israel's daily bombardments.

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed after almost five months of Israel's war in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry, which does not distinguish in its count between fighters and noncombatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 militants, without providing evidence.

The war began after Hamas-led militants stormed across southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 250 others hostage.

Currently:

Food aid reaches north Gaza for first time in weeks, and Israeli hostages’ families push for release.

U.S. sanctions Iranian deputy commander, Houthi member and ships that transport Iranian oil.

— Qatar’s emir to discuss Gaza and hostages with Macron during a state visit to France.

Biden implores Congress to avoid a government shutdown, send urgent aid to Ukraine and Israel.

— Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

Here's the latest:

CANADA SAYS IT'S WORKING TO AIRDROP AID TO THE GAZA STRIP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

OTTAWA, Ontario — Canada is working to airdrop humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip as soon as possible, Canadian International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said Wednesday.

He said the provision of airdrops in partnership with like-minded countries in the region, such as Jordan, was on the table.

Hussen said last week that the provision of aid is nowhere near what’s needed and a tedious inspection process was slowing down the movement of supplies brought in by truck. He made the comments following a trip to the Rafah border crossing, the only way in or out of the Gaza Strip since the Israel-Hamas war began in October.

Canada has put $100 million Canadian ($74 million) toward aid for the besieged territory since the start of the conflict, including $40 million Canadian ($30 million) committed in January.

UN SAYS IT'S NEAR IMPOSSIBLE TO AID PALESTINIANS IN GAZA DURING CONTINUOUS CONFLICT

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations says it’s almost impossible to provide humanitarian aid to more than a million Palestinians in Gaza during the ongoing conflict, responding to Israeli claims blaming the U.N. for failing to deliver assistance to civilians in need of food, water and medicine.

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters Wednesday that there is a breakdown of law and order in Gaza, and “insufficient coordination” with Israel on security and deconfliction, which puts the lives of U.N. staff and other humanitarian workers at risk.

“That’s why we’ve repeatedly asked for a humanitarian ceasefire,” he said.

Dujarric was asked about comments Tuesday by Israel’s deputy U.N. ambassador Brett Miller blaming the U.N. for refusing to deliver aid to northern Gaza, and some U.N. officials of trying to shift the blame for the current humanitarian crisis to Israel.

Miller said in recent days 508 trucks have been waiting to cross into Gaza with Israeli approval. “So where is the U.N. and its aid agencies? How can it be that Israel is libelously held responsible for a situation that is clearly the U.N.’s fault?” he asked.

He spoke after top U.N. officials told the council that at least one quarter of Gaza’s population — 576,000 people — are one step away from famine and virtually the entire population needs food, resulting in some aid trucks being shot at, looted and overwhelmed by desperately hungry people.

Dujarric countered the Israeli claims, saying large trucks entering Gaza have to be unloaded and reloaded onto smaller Palestinian trucks, and there aren’t enough of them, and there’s a lack of security to distribute aid in Gaza.

Nonetheless, he said, U.N., Palestinian and other humanitarian staff are still “putting their lives at risk to distribute humanitarian aid wherever they can.” But he called it “an opportunistic distribution as opposed to one that should be better funded, better organized and more efficient if there was a ceasefire.”

Dujarric said the U.N. has been pressing for more access into Gaza and more roads within Gaza with security to deliver humanitarian aid.

With the war soon entering its fifth month, he said, “the challenges are life-threatening for those who distribute the aid and they’re life-threatening for those who are trying to receive the aid."

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This entry has been updated to correct a quote from U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric. He said “... and they're life-threatening for those who are trying to receive the aid,” not, “... and no less threatening for those who are trying to receive the aid.”

ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER ASKS GOVERNMENT TO INCLUDE ULTRA-ORT HODOX JEWS IN NEW MILITARY DRAFT LAW

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant implored the government to come up with a new draft law that would force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, saying the ongoing war in Gaza leaves the country with “no other choice.”

Military service is compulsory for Jewish males, but politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties have won exemptions for their communities to allow men to study full-time in religious seminaries. This has prompted widespread anger and resentment from the secular majority.

“The Torah has protected Judaism for 2,500 years; however, without our physical existence, there’s no spiritual existence,” Gallant said during a press conference Wednesday evening. He said that in the current security situation, with a war in Gaza dragging toward its fifth month and tensions rising on the northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “every sector of the country needs to work together to protect our home.” Gallant added that he would be extending the enlistment and reserve duty requirements for the military as well.

There are approximately 60,000 ultra-Orthodox males of military age that are not serving, according to Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious equality. Israel mobilized some 300,000 reservists after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court began hearing arguments about a new draft law. Gallant noted that Israel’s courts have been hearing arguments over more equal draft laws for more than 25 years and stressed that Israel’s unprecedented security situation required the government to take firm action. The government is required to submit a new draft law in the coming months, based on a court decision from last year.

Ultra-Orthodox parties, which are a key coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hope to continue the system of exemptions. Opponents, including key members of a mass protest movement against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, say the exemptions are unfair and must end.

In the past, attempts to overhaul the draft law to include ultra-Orthodox have drawn tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox to the streets in large, violent protests that blocked major roadways. On Monday, thousands of ultra-Orthodox scuffled with police in Jerusalem, blocking traffic for a few hours.

PALESTINIAN OFFICIAL SAYS TIME NOT RIGHT FOR COALITION GOVERNMENT

GENEVA — The Palestinian foreign minister says he believes Hamas supports the creation of a “technocratic government” but insists the militant group shouldn’t be included in any coalition government — for now.

Riad al-Malki, speaking two days after Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced his resignation, said that a new government should take responsibility for both the West Bank and Gaza – and that the outgoing one was not seen as “prepared for that responsibility.”

Al-Malki spoke to reporters Wednesday at the United Nations in Geneva, where he was attending a session of the Human Rights Council amid the blistering Israeli military campaign against Hamas after the deadly Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.

The Palestinian Authority, which al-Malki represents, runs autonomous pockets of the Israeli-occupied West Bank but not Gaza, which has been under the control of Hamas since 2007. Hamas has called for all the Palestinian factions to come together to form a government.

Al-Malki said the time was not ripe for a coalition government, suggesting that key donor countries would boycott it were it to include Hamas.

Later, “when the situation is right,” he said, “we could contemplate that option,” though the priority for now is to end the “insane” war in Gaza and protect the Palestinian people. The Israeli government has called for the destruction of Hamas.

Al-Malki said a halt to displacement — the vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes — and building international political support were important, and “Hamas should understand this.”

“And I do believe that they are in support of the idea to establish today a technocratic government,” he added.

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The entry has been updated to correct the spelling of the Palestinian foreign minister’s name to Riad al-Malki, not Riyad al-Maliki.

5 ORGANIZATIONS SUPPORTING HOSTAGES' FAMILIES AWARDED ISRAEL'S GENESIS PRIZE

JERUSALEM — Five organizations supporting the families of those held hostage by Hamas in Gaza have been awarded Israel’s prestigious 2024 Genesis prize.

The $1 million award is usually given to a person for their professional achievements, contributions to humanity and commitment to Jewish values. This year, the organization made a different choice with Israelis focusing on the remaining hostages in the Gaza Strip.

“The purpose of this year’s award is not to influence policy, but to raise international awareness of the plight of the hostages and provide humanitarian assistance focused on recovery, rehabilitation, and treatment,” a co-founder of the prize, Stan Polovets, said Wednesday.

The recipients include the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a grassroots group that sprung up in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to advocate for the return of the abductees.

Roughly 100 of the hostages were freed about 50 days into their captivity. Some 130 others remain in Gaza as negotiations are underway in Qatar. Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

Prize money will also go to the Jewish Agency’s Fund for Victims of Terror, Lev Echad, Natal-The Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, and OneFamily.

AID GROUPS MAKE FIRST DELIVERIES TO NORTH GAZA IN A MONTH

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Aid groups this week have made their first deliveries of food in a month to northern Gaza, where the U.N. has warned of worsening starvation among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians amid Israel’s ground operations.

A convoy of 31 trucks carrying food entered northern Gaza on Wednesday, the Israeli military office that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs said. The office, known by the acronym COGAT, said nearly 20 other trucks entered the north on Monday and Tuesday. Associated Press footage showed people carrying sacks of flour from the distribution site.

As of Sunday, the U.N. had been unable to deliver food to northern Gaza since Jan. 23, according to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees that has led the aid effort during the war. On Feb. 18, the World Food Program attempted a delivery to the north for the first time in three weeks but much of the convoy’s cargo was taken on route by desperate Palestinians, and it was only able to distribute a small amount in the north.

Northern Gaza has largely been cut off and much of it has been leveled since Israeli ground troops invaded in late October. Several hundred thousand Palestinians are believed to remain there, and many have been reduced to eating animal fodder to survive. The U.N. says 1 in 6 children under 2 in the north suffer from acute malnutrition and wasting, and that 576,000 people across Gaza – a quarter of the population – are a step away from famine.

Since launching its assault on Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israel has barred entry of food, water, medicine and other supplies except for a trickle of aid entering the south from Egypt at the Rafah crossing and Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing. Despite international calls to allow in more aid, the number of supply trucks entering has dropped dramatically in recent weeks.

The U.N. has called for Israel to open crossings in the north to aid deliveries and guarantee safe corridors for convoys.

THOUSANDS CALL ON VENICE BIENNALE TO EXCLUDE ISRAEL

MILAN — Thousands of artists, curators and critics have signed an open letter calling on the Venice Biennale to exclude the Israeli national pavilion from this year’s contemporary art fair due to the war in Gaza. However, Italy’s culture minister has firmly backed Israel’s participation.

The online letter was signed by more than 17,000 people through Wednesday, including current and past Biennale participants, and Turner Prize winners.

Israel is among 88 national participants in the 60th Venice Biennale of contemporary art which runs from April 20-Nov. 24.

Palestinian artists are participating in collateral events.

OFFICIALS WARN OF DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES IF UNRWA FUNDING IS NOT RESTORED

BEIRUT — If funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees is not restored soon, it will have devastating consequences for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, officials warned on Wednesday.

“The decision to stop funding UNRWA constitutes a collective punishment for every Palestinian inside Palestine and in the diaspora countries, especially in Lebanon,” Lebanese Member of Parliament Fadi Alame told reporters Wednesday after touring the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon with an UNRWA delegation.

Some 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon depend on UNRWA for services including healthcare, schooling and cash assistance for the poorest families.

Last month, Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA employees took part in the Oct. 7 attack, prompting the United States and other donors to suspend funding. UNRWA immediately fired the 10 surviving employees and has launched investigations. The agency says if funding is not restored, it will have to halt operations in April.

Dorothee Klaus, UNRWA’s director in Lebanon, said that a halt to the agency’s services would have “security and stability” as well as “humanitarian” consequences.

MANY PREGNANT WOMEN IN GAZA MALNOURISHED, AID GROUP WARNS

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — A humanitarian group operating a clinic in the Gaza Strip says 21% of the pregnant women it has treated in the last three weeks are suffering from malnutrition.

Project Hope, which runs a primary health clinic in the central town of Deir al-Balah, said Wednesday that 11% of the children under 5 it has treated during the same period are also malnourished.

U.N. officials say the Israel-Hamas war has pushed a quarter of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians to the brink of famine.

Project Hope says “people have reported eating nothing but white bread as fruit, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods are nearly impossible to find or too expensive.”

Malnutrition is especially dangerous for pregnant women and newborns, who require additional nutrients.

Israel says it does not restrict the entry of humanitarian aid, but the number of trucks entering each day is far below the 500 that entered daily before the war.

U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups say the distribution of aid within Gaza has largely collapsed because of the difficulty of coordinating shipments with the Israeli military, ongoing fighting in many places and the breakdown of law and order.

Hamas-run police forces have stopped escorting convoys after being targeted by Israeli strikes, and crowds of desperate people have in many cases made it impossible to safely deliver aid.

HAMAS FIRES ROCKETS INTO NORTHERN ISRAEL

JERUSALEM — Hamas has fired rockets into northern Israel in what it says is retaliation for the killing of one of its top leaders in an airstrike in Beirut in January.

Hamas’ armed wing said it fired 40 Grad rockets at an Israeli military base and an army barracks. The Israeli military says it identified around 10 launches and intercepted a number of them. Israeli media said a building was damaged in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona.

The military said it struck the sources of the rocket fire as well as a Hezbollah arsenal and military structures. There were no immediate reports of casualties on either side.

Hezbollah has traded fire with Israel on a near-daily basis since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered the war in Gaza. The relatively low-intensity exchanges have displaced tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border and raised fears of a wider conflict.

Hezbollah is the dominant power in southern Lebanon. Hamas and other Palestinian factions have a smaller presence there and are believed to require at least tacit approval from Hezbollah to carry out military operations.

FAMILIES OF HOSTAGES LAUNCH 4-DAY MARCH TO DEMAND THEIR FREEDOM

TEL AVIV, Israel — The families of hostages held in Gaza and their supporters are launching a four-day march from southern Israel to Jerusalem to demand their loved ones be set free.

The march comes as negotiations are underway in Qatar to bring about a deal between Hamas and Israel that would lead to a cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages. U.S. President Joe Biden has said such a deal was at hand but officials from Israel and Hamas were skeptical of his optimism.

Hostages freed in a late-November deal, some of whom still have relatives held in Gaza, are joining the march Wednesday. The march will end near the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this week.

In its Oct. 7 attack, Hamas abducted roughly 250 people, according to Israeli authorities, including men, women, children and older adults. Roughly 100 were freed about 50 days into their captivity. Some 130 hostages remain and Israel says about a quarter of them are dead.

The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, who see in them an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect its citizens from Hamas’ assault.

OVER HALF A MILLION PALESTINIANS IN GAZA ARE A STEP AWAY FROM FAMINE, U.N. SAYS

UNITED NATIONS – At least one quarter of Gaza’s population – 576,000 people – are one step away from famine, and virtually the entire 2.3 million population needs food, a top U.N. humanitarian official says.

And as grim as the picture is now, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Ramesh Ramasingham told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that “there is every possibility for further deterioration.”

He said one in six children under the age of two in northern Gaza -- the initial target of Israel’s offensive following Hamas’ surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 – are suffering from “acute malnutrition and wasting,” where the body becomes emaciated from a lack of nutrition.

Ramasingham said the rest of Gaza’s population is relying on “woefully inadequate humanitarian food assistance to survive.”

He reiterated the U.N.’s urgent call for a cease-fire. If nothing is done, he said, humanitarian officials fear “widespread famine in Gaza is almost inevitable,” and many more people will die.

He said Israeli military operations, insecurity, extensive restrictions on the entry and delivery of essential goods including food, water and medicine, have decimated food production and agriculture. These factors have also crippled the commercial sector which was a key provider of daily needs in Gaza, he said.

At this stage, he said, “very little will be possible" as long as the fighting keeps going and as an Israeli offensive into southern Gaza looms. Some 1.4 million people who fled the fighting have taken refuge in the area around Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza. Israel has vowed to push into Rafah, which it calls a Hamas stronghold.

TWO BABIES STARVE TO DEATH IN NORTHERN GAZA AS ALARM GROWS OVER WORSENING HUNGER

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Two infants died from dehydration and malnutrition at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Gaza City, said the spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry, Ashraf al-Qidra. He warned that infant mortality threatens to surge.

“Dehydration and malnutrition will kill thousands of children and pregnant women in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

The U.N. Population Fund said the Al Helal Al Emirati maternity hospital in Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah reported that newborns were dying because mothers were unable to get prenatal or postnatal care.

Premature births are also rising, forcing staff to put four or five newborns in a single incubator. Most of them do not survive, it said, without giving figures on the numbers of deaths.

QATAR'S EMIR WARNS OF ‘RACE AGAINST TIME’ FOR HOSTAGE RELEASE DEAL

PARIS — The emir of Qatar spoke Tuesday of “a race against time” to secure hostage releases as part of the diplomatic push for a cease-fire in Gaza in which his country is playing a key role.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani spoke during a state visit to France at a dinner in his honor hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron. Al Thani noted that their two countries are working intensely on Gaza diplomacy but also spoke soberingly about the mounting casualties.

“The world sees a genocide of the Palestinian people. Hunger, forced displacement, savage bombardments are used as weapons. And the international community still hasn’t managed to adopt a unified position to end the war in Gaza and provide the strict minimum of protection for children, women and civilians,” the Qatari leader said, speaking through a translator.

South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians, and has filed a case at the United Nations’ top court. Israel adamantly denies the genocide allegations and says it is carrying out operations in accordance with international law.

“We are in a race against time to bring the hostages back to their families and at the same time we must work to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people,” Al Thani said.